This is part of an article series for Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Women to Watch 2020, created in partnership with Essence as part of its diversity and inclusion initiatives.
A couple of years ago, I witnessed an incident that left an indelible impression in my mind. I was out at the park with my young daughter. I noticed a boy and girl (both around five years old) racing each other, with the boy getting pipped to the post. It was not a remarkable event by any measure till what happened next. I heard the boy’s father teasing him about losing to a girl. The look of shame on that little boy’s face is still a vivid image in my head.
To preach to the choir, gender equality is not a women’s issue alone but is a fundamental societal problem. While there is a growing awareness of this issue along corporate corridors, unearned male privilege continues to be a widely prevalent phenomenon, thanks to our social conditioning. Despite the increasing discourse on this subject, women’s representation on company boards is still only 20% and thus it stands to reason that women continue to be underrepresented in the next rungs of leadership, as well. Notwithstanding the stellar efforts of many women to crusade this cause, it is imperative that men take up a more active role in accelerating awareness and action around this agenda.
I have been in advertising nearly my entire career, and have had the privilege of working with some fine and talented people. One of the reasons I am proud to work in this industry is its progressiveness, and its proven ability to shape social mores. #LikeAGirl and #ShareTheLoad are just a couple of examples of the industry’s role in busting gender-related myths. That said, we have some ground to cover when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion at our own workplaces — be it hiring, promotions or other business-related decisions — many perpetrated by men.
Not to suggest that women cannot bring about this change on their own but any meaningful progress in gender equality needs active participation from men. We need to drive this agenda like we would any other business priority. Men in leadership roles have an even bigger role to play — from publicly committing to the cause, leading by example, to taking swift and unequivocal action, when necessary.
Why men are RSVPing ‘maybe’
In my opinion, if not enough men are coming to the party, it is probably for any of these reasons:
1. Unconscious bias: While we may have a general awareness of the issue, it is possible that we might not comprehend its full import. This can lead to indulging in, or overlooking, sexism at the workplace.
2. A flawed understanding of the issue: Many assume that the gender diversity debate is about women demanding preferential treatment; that it is potentially discriminatory to men. Nothing could be farther from the truth; this is only about ensuring a level playing field for all.
3. ‘It’s not my job’: Even if they have the right awareness of the issue, it is not uncommon to deflect responsibility to the folks in the human resources department. Gender diversity and inclusion is beyond being just a human resources matter.
4. Analysis paralysis: The fear of saying or doing the wrong thing can lead men to not act at all — to avoid being called out. We agonise over putting our foot wrong, and end up doing nothing.
5. ‘I’m not like that so it’s not my problem’: Being mindful and acting responsibly at an individual level is a great start but it is important that we call out questionable behaviour when we see it. Make no mistake, turning a blind eye is aiding and abetting.
6. A perceived threat to masculinity: It is not inconceivable for some men to not want to engage on this topic because of the fear of being judged by other men as soft and sentimental — the polar opposite of the tough-as-nails image men are often encouraged to portray.
Inviting men, again
My intention in writing this is not to rebuke men, but to call them to action. Admittedly, my own list of gaffes is long and embarrassing. At the same time, I have observed innumerable instances of men demonstrating remarkable sensitivity in dealing with diversity and inclusion-related incidents. However, these are anecdotal and entirely dependent on the individual. What is required is a systemic approach. While all genders need to actively collaborate in tackling this challenge, here are some ways to bring men more front and centre on this issue:
1. First, organisations need to understand diversity and inclusion as not only a problem facing women, but as a critical business issue and opportunity. Why is diversity and inclusion important? Apart from being the natural order of fairness, there are enough studies that prove that a diverse workforce directly correlates to better business outcomes. Solutions that account for the views of a broader cross-section of employees are more likely to resonate with customers and associates alike.
2. Create platforms to enable men to acknowledge the problem for what it is; that we might be routinely going about our day unaware of our microaggressions. Educate and help us understand the impact of these actions on our colleagues. Ignorance should not be an excuse any longer.
3. Set clear behaviour expectations, and create a safe and secure environment for men to freely share their views on the topic, or to call out inappropriate behaviour — without fear of judgement from other male colleagues.
4. Through regular internal communication and use of male role models, inspire men to enlist for the cause. Appeal to their sense of justness, and encourage them to not just do their bit but to actively become diversity champions. If nothing else, they would be heroes to the women in their lives.
At Essence, diversity and inclusion is a topmost priority. For example, we have ASCEND, a development programme to support our diversity and inclusion commitments. ASCEND is a unique and potent learning experience that goes beyond unconscious bias to explore topics of unearned privilege, fragility and identity, and provides a safe space in which we can have brave conversations about gender, sexuality and race. In doing so, employees find avenues to develop deeper and more meaningful collaborative relationships, and more fulfilling careers. With the ongoing global pandemic, the programme has been reimagined for a virtual learning experience.
In conclusion, while all genders need to come to the party to move the needle on this issue, men have an especially critical role to play. In many Asian societies, the culture at home is very different from that at work. By actively promoting equal rights and opportunities in the workplace, one hopes that this mindset will permeate into our homes, and inform how we treat and raise our children, no matter their gender.
T. Gangadhar is CEO, APAC at Essence, a global data and measurement-driven media agency which is part of GroupM.